Writing with the Masters 5: Marjane Satrapi
By: Jennifer Fiorile
Facial expressions can be hard to read--literally. We can’t know what the exact expression of a character looked like in the mind of the writer. When I write, “She scrunched her face up,” you and I are picturing different things, even if only just slightly. Facial expressions are part of our visual world, but reading relies entirely on the imagination of each reader and clear descriptions from the writer. Or does it? Comics and graphic novels have a versatility that the written word, on its own, lacks. This medium takes away one challenge found in exclusively-written works by letting us see our characters in frame-by-frame action, reacting in real time, which makes a big difference in how we interact with the story.
When we think of comics and graphic novels, we mostly think of super heroes or manga books. These stories can be silly or dramatic, but also moving and inspiring, though they generally tend to be taken less seriously than novels and non-fiction books. People questioned Marjane Satrapi’s choice to write her autobiography, Persepolis, as a graphic novel instead of a “book,” but she felt that there was really no difference since a book is really just the physical pages between two covers that convey a story. Satrapi saw the graphic novel format as a way to transport people into her childhood and impact them, both intellectually and visually. She said, “When you have the talent to be able to write and to draw, it seems a shame to choose only one. I think it’s better to do both.” The story revolves around her life in Tehran and France, before and after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. It’s a transportive, compelling, and informative story, and the illustrations, simplistic black-and-white images, draw us into her world and endear her to the reader. She was first introduced to the idea of the graphic novel as a way to tell a true and difficult story by the famous book, Maus, by Art Spiegelman, which presents the story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. Through Spiegelman’s book, Satrapi saw the power that this medium, often discredited, can have on its readers.
Stories with pictures are something we tend to associate with children’s books, and that leads us to view comics and graphic novels as less earnest than a novel with no images. Certainly, stories with pictures require less imagination on the part of the reader, but they engage our senses in a different way by letting us marvel at how one single framed image can capture the emotions of the characters. When creating a comic or graphic novel, you not only have to write the story, but you also have to create images that correspond perfectly to what’s happening. It requires a kind of clarity that a novel can be more vague or ambiguous about. The benefit of an illustrated story is also that the reaction of a character feels more natural. We read character A’s word bubble and immediately see what character B’s reaction is. With a written work, we have to read about an action and a reaction, and then decide what that looks like in our mind, but that’s not how it works in real life. In real life, we can see what someone’s reaction is immediately. Because of this, comics and graphic novels have a faster pace, instead of being bogging down with a description of an angry or sad face. The illustrated work can simply show us, and then we can keep moving on.
Without the reliance on words for description, the writer-illustrator has to be a clear idea about what the character’s face looks like exactly. They’re limited to the space of the frame, and while modern comic writer-illustrators often play with that space and bend it to their will, one frame can only communicate one immediate reaction. So, it’s vital for an illustrator to know how people’s faces look in that initial moment of anger or joy, emotions that need to be captured and communicated with a sense of urgency. Even if a character feels distraught over the space of three frames, for example, each of those three frames would need to show a different element of the character’s distress, how it affects their face and body. As readers, this can engage us, and our emotions, in a completely different way than a written work can. We can empathize with the character much better, because we can see how they’re feeling.
Satrapi readily admits, though, that this way of storytelling isn’t right for everyone. As she says, “...you have to have a very visual approach to the world. You have to perceive life with images--otherwise it doesn’t work.” Despite our different ways of viewing the world, we can still utilize the sense of clarity needed for comics and graphic novels, even if we still plan to complete a work without images. Let’s say you’re writing a confrontation scene between two characters, but you’re stumped as to how to inject the right amount of intensity and authenticity into the scene. Your dialogue and descriptions are coming off as stale and stiff. Put the writing aside for a bit, and grab a pen and paper. Draw out some large squares, and start filling out each frame with the interaction between the characters. You could have the characters each say two lines per frame or perhaps one says a line and the other reacts. That’s up to you and it’s part of what gives you a chance to play with the pacing of the story and emotional reactions.
We’re not all visual artists (Do stick figures count?), so don’t worry about whether your drawing is good. The purpose of this exercise is to sketch out how the interaction would look in the real world, or at least the 2-D world. Within the space of each frame, you’ll be forced to clearly decide how your characters should behave, act, and react toward each other. This gives you a different kind of restriction to work with, which will make your brain think more creatively and imaginatively. Because we all know the dull-minded feeling you get just sitting and staring at your Word or Google Doc, trying to figure out how to bring this scene to life. Shaking up your traditional approach to writing will keep your mind engaged and on its toes.